If you’re like many Americans, retirement is arguably the biggest expense you’re saving for. To that end, there’s a good chance that your biggest pool of assets is your 401k account at work.
According to industry group Investment Company Institute, at the end of 2019 there are more than 55 million Americans actively participating in their 401k accounts. Moreover, they have just over $5.7 trillion dollars in those accounts, and it’s easy to see why. For most people, 401ks do provide plenty of benefits. From tax-deferred savings to employer matching, the accounts can be a real cornerstone to meeting retirement goals.
The problem is that many 401k accounts are plagued with lousy mutual funds. Thanks to loose fiduciary standards, many plan providers aren’t doing their part to help investors find the best mutual funds for their portfolios. Truth be told, the average 401k plan is a minefield.
But luckily, here at InvestorPlace, we care about your returns and reaching your retirement goals. To that end, we’ve combed through the hundreds of portfolio options to bring you the best mutual funds to buy in your 401k.
These 10 funds appear in plenty of plans and represent some of the best mutual funds to buy for long-term savings.
Vanguard Total Stock Market Index (VTSAX)
Expense Ratio: 0.04%, or $4 per $10,000 invested annually
It should come as no surprise that an option from Vanguard would be top-dog on a list of the best mutual funds. Investors are waking up to the power of index funds as they tend to outperform active management and feature rock-bottom expenses. And Vanguard is the indexing king.
Plenty of 401k plans feature the top-notch Vanguard 500 Index Admiral (MUTF:VFIAX), which tracks the S&P 500. However, the Vanguard Total Stock Mkt Index (MUTF:VTSAX) may be a better choice for your 401k.
The reason comes down to simplicity. VTSAX tracks everything. And we do mean everything. The mutual fund follows the CRSP US Total Market Index. This measure looks at the entire U.S. stock market. That includes giants like Exxon (NYSE:XOM) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) as well as absolute small fries that you’ve never heard off. All-in-all, VTSAX holds more than 3,590 different U.S. stocks.
That huge breath of holdings means there’s no need to hold individual funds covering every corner of the market. It’s all here in VTSAX. This makes the option one of the best mutual funds for your core portfolio. After all, the whole point of a 401k is long-term growth. With VTSAX, you can get that all with ease.
You also get some decent returns as well. Since its inception in 2000, the fund has managed to return at least 7.2% annually. Part of that comes from the fund’s rock-bottom expense. VTSAX costs just 0.04% or $4 per $10,000 invested.
With low costs, good returns and one-ticker access, VTSAX is a great core mutual fund for your 401k account.
Fidelity Puritan (FPURX)
Expense Ratio: 0.53%
Thanks to their all-in-one diversification, balanced funds are often seen as a one-stop-shop for 401k investors. That’s because they own both stocks and bonds under one ticker, usually at a 60/40 stock/bond split. The Fidelity Puritan (MUTF:FPURX) is considered a balanced fund. But one big twist makes it one of the best mutual funds to own for the long haul.
FPURX isn’t static in that 60/40 allocation. Unlike most balanced funds, Puritan’s underlying asset allocation can shift as market conditions change. Managers can gauge market sentiment and play with that 60/40 weighting.
So, in rising and bull markets, that 60/40 stock/bond split can be as high as 80/20. In declining markets, the reverse is possible. And since the fund’s managers aren’t tied to an index in either their bond or stock allocations, they can move around in this regard as well.
This means they can load up on dirt-cheap values or small-cap stocks as well as tread into high-yield bonds. As a result, FPURX is a very different balanced mutual fund than what most investors are used to and it is more of a total return element for a portfolio. That makes it perfect for a tax-sheltered 401k.
Speaking of those returns, Puritan has been spot on. Over the last decade, FPURX has managed to beat the average balanced fund in its category by roughly two percentage points annually. That return has been pretty close to the S&P 500 as well. And yet, FPURX has managed to produce less volatility.
With low expenses of 0.53%, FPURX is a great all-in-one choice for your 401k.
American Funds Washington Mutual Investors (AWSHX)
Expense Ratio: 0.57%
“The Bluest of the Blue Chips” would be a prime way to describe American Funds Washington Mutual Investors (MUTF:AWSHX) fund. The reason for that moniker comes down to conservativism and stock picking requirements of its managers.
Founded in 1952 specifically for fiduciaries, lead manager Alan N. Berro and his team use a variety of strict eligibility screens covering everything from debt levels, quality of earnings, dividend strength and other fundamental criteria. Only about 1% of all available U.S. companies are good enough to make into AWSHX’s holdings.
The end result in those strict requirements is a list of those stocks that absolutely dominate their respective fields, have been around since the beginning of time and feature strong sales/profit profiles. They churn out some hefty dividend income, too. Top holdings for the fund include Home Depot (NYSE:HD) and Merck (NYSE:MRK).
A despite being a gigantic fund — with more than $120 billion in assets — AWSHX has been pretty nimble. The focus on strong dividend-paying equities and holding them for the long-haul has resulted in some great returns. Over the last decade, the mutual fund has managed to pull in just over 12% annually. That’s not too shabby at all.
What’s also not too shabby is its expenses. As an active fund, AWSHX’s expense ratio of 0.57% is actually lower than some index funds. That makes it one of the best mutual funds to own for 401k investors heading into retirement.
Dodge & Cox Stock (DODGX)
Expense Ratio: 0.52%
While “growth” has been a favorite since the recession, “value” has been the proven winner. And that’s why 401k staple Dodge & Cox Stock (MUTF:DODGX) has been one of the best mutual funds to own.
The fund has long had a contrarian and value tilt to its stock holdings. The key to DODGX’s 8.95% annual return over the last two decades has been its unique strategy for picking stocks.
DODGX runs on a committee basis. That is, each of its managers come up with stock ideas and screen for various value and metrics. Those ideas are taken to the fund’s underlying committee who hold a vote for inclusion into the fund.
Because stocks require an all or nothing vote, only a handful of values make into the portfolio. The fund has nearly $70 billion in assets and it only spreads those onto just 63 different names. Top holdings include Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) and FedEx (NYSE:FDX).
This, plus the fact that that DODGX tends to hold stocks for a long time once they’re in the portfolio have made it an outstanding performer over the long haul. That includes besting the S&P 500 for much of the fund’s lifetime. However, the shift to growth over value stocks in recent years has put pressures on its performance. But given values history of winning, it shouldn’t be long before DODGX is back on top.
With low expenses and a 2.22% dividend yield, investors can sit comfortably while they wait.
Metropolitan West Total Return Bond (MWTRX)
Expense Ratio: 0.66%
Interest from bonds and cash holdings are generally taxed at ordinary income rates. So, a 401k or similar retirement plan is a great place to park fixed income mutual funds. The Metropolitan West Total Return Bond (MUTF:MWTRX) could be one of the rock stars of the sector.
As its name implies, MWTRX is a so-called “total return” bond fund. That means the team at the fund isn’t just buying bonds and clipping coupons. They are actively performing credit analysts to find bonds trading for discounts to their par values and underlying cash flows.
At the same time, they’re willing to sell overvalued bonds or securities that have seen their discounts shrink from their portfolio for gains. The combination of coupon clipping and price improvements results in the fund’s return.
This also has the fund not just buying IOUs from Uncle Sam. MWTRX holds a mix of government debt, corporate bonds and asset/mortgage-backed securities.
The real win is that MWTRX’s team happens to be one of the best at doing this. Fixed income is one of the few areas that active management can actually add real alpha to a portfolio. What makes this one of the best mutual funds to buy is its returns. Over the last decade, MWTRX has managed to outperform the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index by more than 1% annually. For boring fixed-income investments, those are some serious extra returns.
Moreover, those extra returns make the fund’s expenses of 0.66% much easier to justify.
T.Rowe Price Blue Chip Growth (TRBCX)
Expense Ratio: 0.7%
Most active managers are pretty terrible. But when they are good, they are really good. Case in point, Larry Puglia and the T. Rowe Price Blue Chip Growth (MUTF:TRBCX). Puglia has been guiding TRBCX for twenty-five years and the results have been more than impressive.
Since the fund’s inception back in 1993, it’s managed to produce an 11.01% annual total return. This compares to just a 9.6% return for the S&P 500 over that time. The reason for those extra returns comes down to stock selection.
Puglia’s combs the large- and mid-cap stock universe for stocks that have plenty of competitive advantages and wide moats. He then screens for those that have faster earnings growth than the broader market as well as high measures of free cash flows. The combination creates a portfolio of stocks primed for long term capital appreciation.
And speaking of the long haul, Puglia tends to stick with his winners. For example, he’s held Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL, NASDAQ:GOOG) shares for roughly than 15 years. Add in a relatively concentrated portfolio of holdings — at just 128 different stocks — and you have a recipe for one of the best mutual funds to buy.
Perhaps the only hit to TRBCX could be its expense ratio of 0.7%. However, given the continued gains and market-beating record of the fund, the higher than average expense ratio is justified. In the end, TRCBX is proof that active management can work.
Vanguard PRIMECAP (VPMCX)
Expense Ratio: 0.38%
As we said, Vanguard is the index king. But you know what? It’s a pretty great active fund manager as well. And the Vanguard PRIMECAP (MUTF:VPMCX) is its top dog.
VPMCX is closed to new outside investors, but there is a backdoor. The fund is still open to those investors who have it as a 401k. Those investors should jump on the opportunity to own one of the best mutual funds around.
Primecap is run by arguably one of the best sets of active managers in history. And while each of the fund’s five managers are responsible for their own sleeve of assets, the idea is the same. PRIMECAP focuses on large- and mid-cap stocks that trade at bargain prices.
However, these stocks do have plenty of growth behind them and many have specific growth catalysts that could propel them forward. This could mean an announced massive buyback program, segment disruption or even restructuring efforts.
With the fund currently holding 139 different stocks, VPMAX’s managers aren’t afraid to place their bets on just a few key ones. Top holdings include Adobe (NASDAQ:ADBE) and Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV). Better still is that the team at VPMAX tends to hold stocks for the long haul in order to realize those growth catalysts and value creation.
The end result? VPMAX has crushed the S&P 500. Over the one, five and 10-year periods, the fund has managed to beat the S&P 500 by over 1% annually. Constant outperformance is what makes Vanguard PRIMECAP a top choice for your 401k.
Vanguard Real Estate Index Admiral (VGSLX)
Expense Ratio: 0.12%
When it comes to real estate mutual funds in a 401k, there really is only one option. And that’s the Vanguard Real Estate Index Admiral (MUTF:VGSLX). Luckily, VGSLX is a great option and investors don’t really need to look anywhere else.
Thanks to its immense size — nearly $70 billion in assets — VGSLX was recently forced to switch indexes to accommodate that heft. It now tracks the MSCI US Investable Market Real Estate 25/50.
But that switch may not be a bad thing after all. VGSLX’s new index includes previous ignored real estate segments like data centers and timber REITs as well as real estate management firms like CBRE Group (NASDAQ:CBRE). This provides extra diversification and the ability to tap into some niche real estate sectors. All in all, the new index expands the fund’s holdings from about 150 to 185 different real estate stocks.
It’s hard to gauge returns for VGSLX because the index transition is relatively new. However, over the longer term, the fund has done a great job mirroring its exposure and has produced some hefty average annual returns.
And there’s a reason to believe that VGSLX will keep that streak alive. Once again, as a Vanguard index fund, fees are dirt cheap for the fund. VGSLX only charges 0.12% in expenses.
Fidelity Low-Priced Stock Fund (FLPSX)
Expense Ratio: 0.52%
Retirement plans are required to include some specialty mutual funds and diversifiers in their mix. There’s a good chance that includes the Fidelity Low-Priced Stock Fund (MUTF:FLPSX), which is good because FLPSX has long been a great performer for investors.
The fund is a bit of an odd bird in that manager Joel Tillinghast is forced to buy, as its name implies, low-priced stocks. The fund’s mandate requires managers to only buy stocks that are initially trading for less than $35 per share. While that may seem crazy, it actually is really smart and helps generate some really big returns over the long haul.
For starters, that low price requirement causes FLPSX to buy many small- and mid-cap stocks. Secondly, this requirement tends to skew the portfolio towards value names. The combination puts the mutual fund right in the sweet spot of the market. Small-cap value stocks have traditionally been the market’s best performers for decades. And the fact that Tillinghast typically holds onto stocks for a long time only enhances this effect for the fund.
What it really does is cause FLPSX to produce some top-notch returns. Over the life of the fund, FLPSX has managed to crush the Russell 2000 Index by nearly four percentage points per year. Meanwhile, the fund has managed to see lower drawdowns versus the index during rough patches such as over the last year.
In the end, FLPSX is weird and but funky, and it has been a proven winner in many 401k plans.
Vanguard Target Date Retirement Series
Target date funds get a bad rap from many investment professionals. And it’s easy to see why. Many come layered with fees, under-performing active management and too much or too little risk for timelines. But when they are done right, they can be wonderful core or sole positions in a 401k plan. It’s not surprising that Vanguard offers the gold standard.
Funds like Vanguard Target Retirement 2050 (MUTF:VFIFX) and Vanguard Target Retirement 2025 (MUTF:VTTVX) offer a blend of stocks and bonds that get more conservative as investors get closer to the date listed in the fund name. The funds are set up as “through” retirement funds and, as such, do include stock allocations during retirement.
Vanguard uses just four underlying broad index funds to create the asset mix: Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Investor Shares, Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund Investor Shares, Vanguard Total Bond Market II Index Fund and Vanguard Total International Bond Index Fund Investor Shares.
With those four holdings, investors literally own every stock and bond on the planet. The diversification is amazing and supports long term growth until retirement. Even better is that Vanguard does a roll-up fee scheme in that the 0.15% you pay to hold the target date fund is the total fee for everything.
All in all, if your plan offers Vanguard’s target-date funds, it could be the only holding you need to have. And that makes them some of the best mutual funds around for retirement savers.
At the time of writing, Aaron Levitt held a position in VFIFX.